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Interview With Witold Rybczynski

Interview With Witold Rybczynski

The author of Makeshift Metropolis discusses Montreal, why shopping is great and the shortfalls of urban planning.

Witold Rybczynski is a writer with a formidable resume. He contributes to the New York Times and The New York Review of Books; currently, he is the architecture critic for Slate. Rybczynski's new book, Makeshift Metropolis, showcases his expertise and vast knowledge on urbanism, cities and the ideas about the way we live in the world. The book engages with cities with the eye of someone looking at the world again for the first time; it asks what a city actually is and how it functions, and "why people behave the way they do, live where they live, choose what they choose."

Montreal has a palpable presence in Makeshift Metropolis. Rybczynski studied and taught architecture at McGill University; the final cadences of his new book point to the work of Moshe Safdie, the architect behind Montreal's Habitat 67, as a model for the twenty-first-century city. Rybczynski is no doubt an expert on architecture and urban planning around the world, but in our conversation, he showed that one of the things he knows best is the city of Montreal.

Megan Lau: How did you make the transition from architect to writer?

Witold Rybczynski: Oh, that happened a long time ago. I was an architect, but I was teaching at McGill, so I was doing a lot of academic writing—reports, articles, papers and so on. When I wrote an article that turned into a book, it was a much more personal sort of writing than I did as a scholar. I found that I really enjoyed that, and it was a different sort of experience.

It was a book about technology [Paper Heroes: Appropriate Technology: Panacea or Pipe Dream? (Anchor/Doubleday, 1980)], the sort of "small is beautiful" movement in technology. So my first several books were not about architecture. It was almost as if I was taking a vacation from my day-to-day work.

The third book I wrote was Home (Penguin, 1986), which was my most successful up to that point. Home was sort of about architecture, but it was also about interiors and the evolution of comfort in the home. That book led to other opportunities to write in newspapers, magazines and other things. It encouraged me to write more about what consumed me most of the time: architecture. So my next book [The Most Beautiful House in the World (Penguin, 1990)] used the story of building a house to tell about how architects think and how buildings come about.

That really drew me more and more into writing. I started spending more time on writing while still teaching. It was around '85 or 1990 when I stopped practicing as architect. City Life was the first book I wrote about cities.

ML: In the time between writing City Life and Makeshift Metropolis, have cities changed? Is there something different in the way that they look or they way they've been planned?

WR: No, I don't think there was much change in that sense. Cities have gone through an up-and-down cycle. Since writing City Life, the economy slumped in the 1980s and a lot of cities stopped growing. In the next decade, people started moving back into cities, particularly into downtown areas. In terms of the kind of development that takes place in cities, there was a big burst then. Projects have gotten much bigger.

Also, the whole new urbanism movement—which was just starting when I was writing City Life—has grown much bigger.

But the change was more in terms of what happened to my life. When I came to Philadelphia [where Rybczynski current lives], I was teaching a class at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. There, I got to know economists in the real estate department. I started to see cities through the eyes of economists and I started to appreciate their perspectives. It's two different ways of seeing the same places.

ML: Do cities have a place in our shared conversation, or did you write the book with the intention to inspire a conversation about shaping cities?

WR: There's a great deal of variety in terms of the way people relate to cities. Some people live in cities at a certain age and then move away. Because of mobility and living longer, more people think about living in a city at some point of their lives. We know that a lot of people live in small cities than ever before. It used to be that you were a New Yorker or you weren't. If you weren't one then you never would be. That's less the case today.

Today, whether you live in a big city or a small town, you're much more alike in many ways. The difference, in many ways, between living in a large city or a small town is much smaller now because of technology. Urbanism is now available to people everywhere, regardless of where they live. Before if you didn't live in Montreal, you didn't get smoked meat. Now, if you want smoked meat, you can order it online.

ML: You note that Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of American Cities and Jacobs's influential ideas came out of perspective of a middle-class woman in the arts. You return to the role of class, wealth and status in cities at the end of the book, where you argue that downtown living only really appeals to a small group of people. Would you say that downtown living or living in a city is a status symbol, or a lifestyle choice?

WR: It's definitely a lifestyle choice. One of the biggest changes since Jane Jacobs wrote her book is the difference in incomes that have emerged, particularly in the States. When she was writing, the kind of people that wanted to live downtown were kind of bohemians, academics and artists—and not particularly well-off people. The difference between the middle class and the wealthy was smaller. There were fewer wealthy people. That all changed after she wrote her book. The city she knew is not the same anymore. And it's not just the cities; society has also changed.

I think living in cities has always been a lifestyle choice. It requires tradeoffs. You have to give up space, but you get variety. You give up some degree of personal freedom because you're not just living with a few people but a lot of people and most of them are strangers. If you live in a small town you interact with a smaller group of people but you know all of them. Moving to a city always meant moving and giving up certain things but also gaining certain things: excitement, opportunities, meeting people that were different than you.

One of the big changes that happens in the eighties was that young people are attracted to urban living again—which wasn't necessarily the case when Jacobs was writing. Also, retired people were living longer and had more money. They suddenly discovered that when the kids grow up and leave, it's more interesting to live in a city.

The history of cities has always been about attracting people to some extent, but it's not necessarily always the same people.

ML: There's a tension between form and function in the book. You suggest that on the one hand, designers conceptualize cities with aesthetic goals, whereas the market demands utility. Can the two goals be reconciled? Are art and function in cities mutually exclusive?

WR: I think they are exclusive. For example, Montreal was not planned in a grand way. It grew over time and it has a beautiful site—the mountain and the river have always been particular attributes of Montreal. But those are natural.

Mount Royal was sort of the "grandest" thing that the city ever took on. But as far as the street layout is concerned, it's fairly utilitarian. How it came about was much more governed by where people needed to go and where they wanted to live. The city started near the river and then it started to move up towards the mountain. The wealthy wanted to live on the mountain because you had the views and fresh air. None of that was planned.

In a North American city, planning doesn't produce the best results. You can't plan a city in the way that the European cities were planned because much of that was done by dictators and kings. They could make big decisions and everyone had to follow them. In North America, that was never true. That's why the market plays such a big role in the story of my book because there isn't a great power deciding things.

Architecture is also very important, but it's a combination of the grand architecture and the residential buildings. For many people one of the most attractive things about Montreal are the neighbourhoods. For the most part they were built by very small entrepreneurs. In a happy way, it's produced a wonderful environment. That's true of some parts of New York and London and other cities. They're all different but they are all a result of people coming together and trying to figure out how to build things and create an attractive and livable environment. 

ML: One of the things that unites all cities is retail. You devote an entire chapter of the book to examining the role of shopping. I found that quite refreshing because consumerism is a bit of a dirty word these days, but it's an integral part of the way we live.

WR: I wanted to write about retail because it is a part of city life that really is a result of demand, rather than planning or some kind of high-minded ideal. The way that shopping is organized—whether as a department store, a mall or some kind of an arcade—it tended to be a very direct response to what was supposed to attract people. It wasn't a theoretical planning idea but rather something more pragmatic.

What's striking about retail is that is changes very quickly. It's very responsive.

I've lived in very old houses in Montreal. They're a hundred years old and we still live in them. The plumbing and the wiring has been changed but they're still the same houses. But the department stores that I knew when I was young are gone. Shopping changes radically and quickly. Shops come and go.

In cities, a lot of the mixing that you do with other people happens while you're in the shopping district of a city. You may not be buying things in that time, but a downtown can have hundreds or thousands of stores. Most people go in very few of them—maybe just a restaurant or a bookstore, or some other place. Everyone has a different pattern. There's this enormous variety in a city; you can create your own place within it. In a small town everyone goes to the same stores because there are only five. That's not the case in a city. The way we go shopping also changes.

Change is an inherent part of cities all over the world. People use terms like gentrification, which are very misleading. It suggests that stability in a city is normal. It's not normal.

The city I knew when I lived there is gone. The mountain is still there—and when I'm there it feels almost the same as it did twenty years ago. But when I'm in the streets, the stores, the people are all different. And that's normal. That's just the nature of cities.

Related on

—Vintage Aerial Views of Montreal
—Journeys at the CCA: The Architecture of Migration
—Alphabet City

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